Monday, February 3, 2014

On the gruesome trail of syphilis, then and now

A woodcut from about 1497 shows a physician treating a patient with syphilis, one of the earliest known depictions of the disease.

Tracking the origin of syphilis, and related treponemal diseases, has taken Emory anthropologist George Armelagos and his graduate students across the globe and through time, from the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the forests of West Africa where modern-day monkeys suffer from a vicious form of yaws. Armelagos co-wrote an article for The Scientist summarizing the work with two of his former Emory graduate students: Kristin Harper, now a researcher at MetaMed, and Molly Zuckerman, who is now an assistant professor at Mississippi State University. Below is an excerpt from the article:

"By the close of the 15th century, chaos reigned in Naples, Italy. At the invitation of Pope Innocent VIII, the French King Charles VIII invaded the city with 25,000 troops. Soon after, a terrible new disease appeared among the soldiers and the prostitutes who accompanied them. Boils as big as acorns that burst and left scabs, terrible joint pain, rotting flesh, and a revolting odor tortured the infected. By the dawn of the 20th century, it was estimated that as many as 10 percent of London residents, 15 percent of Parisians, and 20 percent of US army recruits had the disease—dubbed syphilis after the hero of a 16th-century poem who is afflicted with the infection as a punishment for insulting the god Apollo.

A CDC micrograph of T. pallidum.
"The pale, corkscrew-shaped bacterium responsible for the outbreak, Treponema pallidum, was identified in 1905, and the prevalence of the infection plummeted in the developed world after the discovery of antibiotics. Still, roughly 12 million people are diagnosed with syphilis each year, and it remains an important public health problem in low-income countries.  ...

"Recently, many researchers, our group included, have taken a new approach to the study of the origin and evolution of syphilis and its cousins, and the breadth of these diseases’ reach today. Leveraging techniques from genetics, biological anthropology, and wildlife disease ecology, syphilis researchers are now beginning to answer questions that have been pondered for hundreds of years. The skeletal, genetic, and ecological information scientists are now uncovering could inform our understanding of how T. pallidum has evolved and how we can best control it today."

Read the whole article in The Scientist.

Skeletons point to Columbus voyage for syphilis origins
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